Lucy Parsons was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies), a labor union fighting to abolish capitalism and instill workers' democracy. Born in Chicago in 1905, the IWW was a product of more than 200 trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and industrial unionists. From its inception the IWW offered a radical strategy and perspective counter to mainstream labor unions of the day.
The IWW immediately took the lead in organizing minority workers against capitalism. Unlike the American Federation of Labor, the IWW set forth to organize women, people of color, immigrants and unskilled workers into one big union, organized along industry lines instead of by craft, and many prominent people of color and women took leadership roles in the IWW such as Ben Fletcher, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Frank Little. The IWW believed "the working class and the employing class" had "nothing in common" and urged direct action on the job to win demands and build working class power.
The Industrial Workers of the World differed from conventional unions in more significant ways as well. The IWW was fighting for more than just better working conditions, they were working to build "the structure of the new society within the shell of the old". The IWW aimed to unite workers around the world, lock arms, and walk off their jobs in a mass general strike, rendering factory owners powerless, effectively overthrowing capitalism. In its place would be the new society based on industrial unionism, in which workers controlled their own destinies and the fruits of labor could be enjoyed by all.
Lucy Parsons and the famous stuggles she emerged from influenced the IWW throughout its history in ways large and small. While she was never the pivotal organizing asset to the IWW that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood or Joe Hill were, her articles did frequently appear in the IWW press and she often attended mass IWW meetings and conventions, and her writings and speeches were always welcome with the IWW. "Lucy Parsons' impact on labor radicals in general and Wobblies in particular," writes labor historian Franklin Rosemont, "was in fact immense". Her presence alone at IWW meetings was inspiring in and of itself, as she reminded IWW activists of the Haymarket legacy, the founding of the IWW and the class struggles in which everyone was connected.
The IWW rose to fame with startling new labor actions, solidarity with other workers, and incredible hard-fought victories over powerful employers. "Among the most significant of these" labor battles, writes IWW historian Joyce Kornbluh, "were the Goldfield, Nevada, miners' strike (1906-07), the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers' strike (1912), the lumber workers' strikes in Louisiana and Arkansas (1912-13), the Paterson, New Jersey, silk workers' strike (1913), and the Mesabi Range ironworkers' strike (1916)." Much of the IWW's work involved free speech fights as well. Like Lucy Parsons and other radical orators of the day the right to speak freely was a vigourous struggle. The IWW also pioneered many new tactics, labor songs and working class culture which prevail among mainstream labor unions even today. Tactics such as the sit-down strike and industrial organizing, once considered radical ideas, are now part of the history of the labor movement in general. The IWW's array of labor songs are still sung today at union marches, pickets and rallies.
The IWW eventually suffered severe state and corporate repression, almost killing the organization. IWW organizers were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges (or no charges at all) for decades. IWW union halls were raided, sabotaged and destroyed. Key organizers were beaten, lynched, castrated and killed and anti-IWW propaganda campaigns by employers were widespread and effective, leaving the IWW in a shattered, severely weakened state. But despite all of this the legacy of the IWW did not come to an end. Throughout the years the IWW continued to survive, and although it has never recovered from the state repression it endured, the IWW is still fighting and winning today. In recent years several IWW union elections have been won, membership has increased and IWW activity has continued to grow.